Police and county turn to arbitration over salary dispute

Executive broke promise of retroactive pay raise, union president says

April 01, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

After more than three months of negotiating, the Howard County police union and county officials acknowledged yesterday they disagreed over compensation and are now turning to nonbinding arbitration in an attempt to reach a labor contract.

James F. Fitzgerald, the police union president, said he planned to hold a general meeting for the 275 police officers last night to update them on the negotiations and discuss the next steps.

Fitzgerald said both sides have settled a number of issues since negotiations began in December, but differences over pay increases remain. Fitzgerald accused County Executive James N. Robey of breaking an unwritten pledge to make up the second half of a 4 percent increase and make it retroactive to July 1.

"We have fallen considerably behind when it comes to an adequate and just compensation to protect the citizens of Howard County," Fitzgerald said.

The starting salary for a police officer is $36,254, the Police Department's Web site states. An officer with two years of experience would start at $37,378, according to the Web site.

Last year, Fitzgerald said, the union sought a 4 percent increase, but reached a compromise with the county for an immediate 2 percent increase in July, with another 2 percent by the end of June. Last year's one-year contract narrowly passed by 53 percent in a July vote.

But the sticking point, Fitzgerald said, is that Robey promised that the 2 percent increase would be retroactive if the state did not cut its funding to the county. Fitzgerald said he believes the state has not cut funding to the county.

Robey could not be reached for comment late yesterday. His administration has had a tough budget year. Income tax revenue was $22 million less than projected, and a $6.3 million budget error created another financial hole. Robey held back $9.5 million -- representing half the promised 4 percent pay raise for county employees -- to guard against more state budget cuts, but those remain a possibility while the General Assembly fights with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over slot machines.

Robert S. Lazarewicz, the county's human resources director and chief labor negotiator, disagreed with Fitzgerald.

"I don't know how he can say there haven't been any cuts," Lazarewicz said. "I know countywide there were some cuts, to the best of my knowledge."

Lazarewicz said he did not know of any promise that Robey made to the police union about a retroactive pay increase.

"I deal with contracts, and I'm not able to comment on anything outside the contracts," he said.

Lazarewicz said the next step will be for an arbitrator to attempt to mediate a settlement. If a settlement is not reached, the mediator will hold fact-finding meetings to gather information on both sides' positions, and write a recommendation that will be presented to the county executive.

Fact-finding meetings are scheduled for April 16 and 19, Fitzgerald said.

But the arbitration process is nonbinding, both sides said, meaning that Robey can reject the mediator's recommendations.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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